Antipolitical Cynics Refuted?

Antipolitical Cynics Refuted?

by Gene Callahan

NY Times columnist David Brooks recently cited a number of
positive trends in the US over the last two decades, such
as the reduction in crime, two long economic booms,
declining rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion,
improvement in the material well-being of the poor, and
cleaner air and water. He says that US trends in these
areas compare quite favorably with those in Europe. He

"But the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that
despite all the ugliness of our politics, this is a well-
governed nation. The trends of the past two decades stand
as howling refutation of those antipolitical cynics who
have become more scathing about government even as the
results of our policies have been impressive."

These positive trends are certainly to be applauded.
Furthermore, they ought to caution libertarians who always
are inclined to contend that we are on the verge of going
to hell in a hand basket. But are they really "a howling
refutation" of those who are cynical about politics? Do
they really show that this is a "well-governed nation"?

Imagine a time when medical knowledge is abysmally poor. In
fact, all practitioners of the era are quacks, employing
treatments more likely to harm than to heal their patients.

Despite this sorry state of affairs, we can also imagine
that even among such charlatans, some are far worse than
others. One doctor, perhaps the least incompetent of the
bunch, compiles a number of statistics on patient survival
rates, life expectancy, and so on. He discovers that his
patients are near the top in all relevant categories.
Therefore, he claims:

"The overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that that
my patients are a well-doctored people. The trends of the
past two decades stand as howling refutation of those anti-
medical cynics who have become more scathing about doctors
even as the results of my treatments have been impressive."

His argument is, of course, nonsense. Far from being a good
doctor, he is merely the least bad of a sorry crew. His
patients would be better off without his treatment,
although they would be even worse off if treated by other

None of the facts Brooks presents demonstrate that the US
government is not analogous to our "least-bad doctor." I
will readily admit that I would rather live in the US than
in North Korea or Cuba. And it is undeniable that many good
things happen in America every day. But is it our benign
governance that is responsible for most of them, or do they
happen despite our government, arising from the areas of
civil society our government has not yet obliterated? If
the latter is true, then perhaps even less government would
make things go even better.

I do not believe such questions can be decided based on
"the lessons of history." History always presents us with
complex phenomena that do not unambiguously support any
theoretical scheme. The very same event that, to a
Marxist, is a proof of capitalist exploitation serves, for
a libertarian, as an illustration of the wonders of the
free market. The same historical facts that demonstrate the
efficacy of tariffs to a protectionist show the foolishness
of obstructing international commerce to a free trader.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that many of the
positive trends Brooks cites are in areas where the US
government has either reduced its level of intrusion, or
typically has intruded less than the governments of most
other nations.

Brooks himself attributes the improved statistics on child
poverty to the welfare reform of the 1990s, which lessened
the involvement of the government in child poverty.
Similarly, the relatively robust economic growth over the
last two decades followed a significant decrease in
marginal tax rates; in other words, it came after the state
stopped seizing a large chunk of the nation's wealth. Here,
I will admit that Brooks's argument contains a kernel of
truth: in the economic sphere, the US is better governed
than most of Europe, but only in that our government does
less in the area than most European governments.

Brooks says, "There are now fewer highway deaths in the
U.S. than in 1970, even though the number of miles driven
has shot up by 75 percent." But is it really the government
that is responsible for that, or is it mostly due to the
improvements in product safety that naturally arise on the
free market?

Environmental concerns are frequently cited by those
advocating active government. It must be admitted that
governmental regulation has played a part in the
improvement in the quality of our air and water over the
last several decades. But to pat the government on the back
for this ignores the fact that the state first intervened
to permit the pollution that it is now regulating.

For instance, the British economist A.C. Pigou declared
that government regulation was necessary to prevent costs
from being imposed on third parties. His first illustrative
example asserted that, if not for regulation, sparks from
the engines of trains might often burn down woods, not
owned by the railroad, which bordered the tracks.

But Nobel-Prize-winner Ronald Coase has pointed out that
the only reason railroads needed such regulation was that
the government had previously granted them exemption from
normal liability for the damage caused by their operation.
Prior to the exemption, railroads would have been fully
liable for any damage their activities caused to the
property of others.

Brooks might respond that even the earlier laws holding the
creators of a nuisance liable would not have existed
without the state. To examine such a contention in any
depth is too large a project for a short column. In brief,
however, I will note that there are many historical
examples of law existing independent of anything resembling
a modern state. A bald assertion that law presupposes the
state does not pass muster.

In considering the medical example I used at the beginning
of this column, you may have wondered, "How in the world
could a profession that made most of its customers worse
off ever survive?" If it had true customers, free to
patronize it or not, it is extremely unlikely that it would
survive. Even the most primitive of witch doctors likely
had a net positive effect on their patients, if only due to
the patients' own belief in the witch doctor's powers.

But the subjects of modern states are not free to patronize
them or not. States have monopolized the entire land
surface of the earth. By the end of the 19th century,
modern states had conquered the last remaining stateless
areas in the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa and the
American West. When some place in the world is "threatened"
with statelessness, one or more interested states generally
rushes in to ensure that some state controls the territory
in question.

Although in many places a state's subjects can vote to
replace one set of people nominally running the state with
another, they are never presented with the option of having
no state. Only in rare cases have they even been allowed to
peacefully create a new state from part of the territory of
an existing one. The "lessons" a person finds in history
usually reflect the presuppositions he brings to the
evidence. Brooks assumes that if good things are happening,
the government must be responsible, so it is no surprise
that he finds the US well governed. Those of us with
different assumptions beg to differ.

Gene Callahan, the author of Economics for Real People, is
an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a
contributing columnist to Column reprinted
with author's permission.


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